England head coach Gareth Southgate says Bakayo Saka earned his starting berth against Czech Republic because of his performances in training.
Saka was a surprise choice on the right side of England’s attack, replacing Phil Foden who was rested as he was sitting on a yellow card with a threat of suspension if he picked up another booking.
England fans and pundits had been clamouring for Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho to be given a start, but it was Arsenal man Saka who got the nod after impressing Southgate and his coaches in training during the week.
And he repaid the faith in him by playing a starring role, combining with Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling in a vibrant first-half attacking display that saw England win 1-0 to top Group D.
Grealish set up the only goal of the game for Sterling with a fine cross, but the move was started by Saka’s drive and dribbling from the halfway line.
“Jack produced a fabulous cross for the goal,” said Southgate, who had to deal with Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell going into isolation in a challenging build-up.
“We saw some of the interchange of positions of those forward players was really exciting. I thought at the start of the game especially. We tired a little bit but we knew that because one or two are a little bit short of fitness.
“Bukayo, I can’t speak highly enough of him. He’s earned that opportunity. His performances in training since he’s joined this camp have been outstanding.
“He played well in the game at the Riverside (against Romania). We’ve talked about playing him in some of the previous matches and, yeah, he earned that chance tonight and he’s grabbed it. He was fabulous.”
Saka, 19, was named star of the match by UEFA after a fine showing in what was his debut appearance in a tournament game for England.
The Arsenal forward will now be aiming to keep his place as Southgate’s men look to tackle the knockout stages, with Saka admitting his display against the Czechs is something to build on.
“The performance does give me confidence,” he said.
“Most importantly gives the team confidence. That’s our third clean sheet and of course we scored a goal tonight and could have scored more, played some good football.
“For myself I take a lot of confidence from the performance and I think the team will as well.”
England were already assured of qualification before they kicked off on Tuesday night but the win saw them progress as winners of Group D.
Asked what instructions were given by Southgate ahead of the game, Saka added: “To play, have fun.
“Play with freedom and express yourself. We had already qualified so there was no pressure on us. Just have fun out there and that’s what I tried to do.”